LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Exhausted California firefighters worked on Friday to contain two wildfires threatening homes along the coast before sundown, when shifting winds were expected to give the blazes more power.
Fire crews have been battling a siege of more than 1,000 blazes that have blackened nearly a half million acres across the state since lightning storms in early June ignited drought- and disease-plagued brush and trees.
The Basin Complex and Gap fires, burning about 170 miles
apart, are being fed by dense, tall grass and brush chaparral in steep, rocky terrain that has not burned in some places for more than half a century.
The Gap fire, considered the state’s top priority because of its proximity to homes in Goleta, a town of about 30,000 about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, burned within a few feet of dozens of homes overnight and still threatens some 2,600 homes.
The fire started on Tuesday evening along a ridge in the Los Padres National Forest, about 3 miles north of Goleta, and has since grown to 5,400 acres. The cause is still under investigation, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Stanton Florea.
Fire crews on the ground spent Friday afternoon building lines around the main blaze and clearing brush around homes and buildings, while air crews tried to smother flames with water and fire retardant in the fire’s path.
“(The afternoon) is when the fire is most active,” Florea said. “The humidity has come up a little today. That helped.”
But during the night, moisture-laden coastal winds have been giving way to a dry, offshore flow known as a “sundowner” that has pushed the fire downhill toward Goleta, he said.
Evacuation orders remained in effect for 1,700 area homes, and residents likely would not be allowed back for several days, Florea said. “This fire siege has been going on since June 8,” Florea said. “Cumulative fatigue becomes a factor.”
Farther up the coast, firefighters worked on Friday to cut trees and brush away from homes and buildings in Big Sur ahead of the slow-moving Basin Complex Fire burning in the foothills above the scenic community.
The blaze, which started June 21 and has grown to more than 65,000-acres (26,000-hectares), sent a finger of flames downhill overnight toward the historic Ventana Inn before firefighters tamped it out with foam, fire information officer Rudy Evenson said on Friday.
The fire also crept up to the Pacific Coast Highway about five miles north of Big Sur on Friday but was easily doused before it crossed over, Evenson said. About 25 miles of the coastal highway remained shut down.
“We had a pretty good morning -- it was pretty cool and quiet,” Evenson said late on Friday afternoon. “It’s kind of hard to say what’s going to happen. The wind is definitely picking it up a little bit.”
Fire crews have waged a house-to-house battle over the tree- and grass-fed Basin Complex fire, and so far have gained just 5 percent containment and did not expect to fully contain it until the end of the month.
The blaze has been burning along wind-whipped ridgetops, steadily progressing northwest toward Pico Colorado, a community of about 2,000 people who are under an evacuation advisory, Evenson said.
About 1,800 homes and businesses in Big Sur remained under a mandatory evacuation order, although Evenson said it was difficult to tell whether residents of the spread-out, remote homes had complied. The fire has destroyed about 20 homes.
Big Sur is about 140 miles south of San Francisco.
With additional reporting by Bob Galbraith in Big Sur
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